Category Archives: Technology

Laudato Si’, Technocracy and Technobuzz

As the root source of the threat to the human ecosystem Pope Francis has targeted the ‘technocratic paradigm’ – the mindset that sees in technology alone the solution to all problems. What explains this obsession with technology, both among its creators and its consumers?

It is in articles 101-136 of Laudato Si’ that we find Pope Francis’ analysis of the root of the current threat to the earth environment. First comes the ‘technocratic paradigm’ – the growing tendency to see in technology the sole and sufficient route to the future. This fosters ‘modern anthropocentrism’ – the human tendency to think of ourselves as masters of creation rather than dependent upon it. ‘Practical relativism’ follows: our tendency to solve problems in isolation, without respect to the wider and long-term impact of the ‘fixes’ we apply.

There can be no serious questioning of the weight of this diagnosis. Who can be unaware of the impact of technology – in all of its varieties – upon the physical context of our lives, from the morning alarm to the workplace computer and then, perhaps the evening TV or ‘home cinema’ experience. Technology’s impact upon our inner space is also unavoidable, and possibly even more profound. To judge by the coverage given by the media, we avidly look for news of tech fixes to every human ailment from paralysis to Alzheimer’s disease to blindness – and follow the progress of domestic robots in house cleaning and lawn control. Will there soon be powered ‘exoskeletons’ to boost our physical strength for heavy lifting? Will today’s armed drones be the precursors of fully automated warfare? Are powerful long-lasting batteries just around the corner, to make affordable electric cars the norm everywhere? And what is going on just now in nuclear fusion research, to realise the dream of limitless cheap and clean energy?

You’re a phone addict,’ my daughter-in-law told me in July 2015 – and she has a point. Information technology feeds this commentator’s hunger for news on everything from the Eurozone crisis to the war in Syria and Iraq, not to mention push-back among some Catholics to Laudato Si’. When away from base, in almost every idle moment, if there is a possibility of a wifi connection, I tend to reach for my phone’s browser to see ‘what gives’.

Yet my own experience leads me to look in particular for signs that the information deluge can also lead to wisdom – a realisation that there will never be an app that can do for us what wild places or prayer can do, or to deal with a sudden bereavement, or sudden redundancy, or even the news of our own impending mortality. The buzz that new technology brings is always temporary, a vain flight from the fragility and tragedy of life.

The constant truth is that, unless we do suffer some kind of grounding experience, we typically want to escape from the reality of our own limitedness and vulnerability. Disbelieving in our own value as temporary beings whose bodies will eventually be powerless to prevent their own interment or cremation, we seek to escape this reality through fantasies of invulnerability and permanence. That’s why teenage boys can spend so much time on digital games of ‘warcraft’ and why Hollywood can make billions from superhero movies. The movie title Ironman says it all: we (men especially) are typically ashamed to be mere flesh and blood – the stuff of inevitable decay.

It follows necessarily that we seek some kind of ‘add on’. The young jihadist’s Kalashnikov, the young westerner’s Smartphone and the technocrat’s executive jet are hugely different in terms of function and effect, but they all serve essentially the same private purpose: to reassure us of the value we are constantly seeking to enhance, the value we cannot believe we already possess in our naked selves.

It is this that makes us endlessly subject to the fetishisation of ‘add ons’ – accessories that give us temporary fixes to our need for reassurance. The next person’s lack of interest in what we already possess will convince us we ‘need’ whatever it is that currently fascinates him or her. Knowing this, Apple Corps and l’Oreal can always be sure that the next ‘iteration’ of their latest ‘must haves’ will be in demand

Kenneth Graham’s character, Toad, in The Wind in the Willows is a timeless archetype of this very human affliction. We meet him in a state of complete delight in his new horse-drawn caravan. This is to be his mobile home forever – or so he tells his friends Ratty and Mole. Completely convinced, these three set off to the sound of clopping hooves and the tinkling kitchen utensils that decorate the interior.

Out of the blue they are passed by a fast motor car – whose driver shows his contempt for the caravan and its occupants by failing to slow down as he passes. To their astonishment Mole and Ratty find that this single mechanical epiphany is sufficient to destroy Toad’s interest in the caravan, and to create a new and dangerous fixation. The rest of the story is an account of their failure to save Toad from the consequences.

Published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows pinpoints the human weakness that lies at the root of all technology ‘buzzes’. Steve Jobs’ success in disrupting the mobile phone market with the iPhone became the ‘iconic’ objective of all today’s entrepreneurial wannabes – and our neighbour who flashes its latest iteration will seal the doom of its predecessor. This single failing is sufficient to explain both technocracy and the endless demand for its products.

This is the root spiritual problem of human desire. First, our self-satisfaction is always unstable. Second, the merest suggestion that we will be better off with the latest ‘iconic’ accessory can trigger self-dissatisfaction and the supposition that we ‘really’ need it. A yearning for possession can then seize hold.

Notice that ‘consumerism’ is almost as inadequate a term for this problem as ‘materialism’. (Thankfully the latter does not appear even once in Laudato Si’.) All words ending in ‘ism’ imply an intellectual bias – but whose ‘consumption’ is caused by such a bias? Who sets out to be a ‘consumerist’? Mr Toad wanted to believe that his caravan was the be-all and end-all of his desire. He had no initial intent to swap it for a fast car. So it is with whatever we are currently fascinated by. It is in a combination of the instability of our self-esteem with an experience of something (apparently) better that our every next technology fetish will originate. The term ‘consumerism’ serves the dual purpose of apparently naming a problem that’s out there – and of exonerating ourselves from complicity. Until we all acknowledge our own susceptibility to the sabotaging of our present content by an endlessly innovative market – and by the acquaintance in thrall to the next ‘must-have’ – we won’t really catch hold of the problem.

For the church to recover its grip on this we merely need to see that Eve had exactly the same problem, and that we are warned about it by the ninth and tenth commandments. The ‘technocratic paradigm’ can be overcome only by a prayerful resistance to the call to endless covetousness – mimetic desire – and a passionate insistence that what we truly need is the reassurance born of relationship with the true source of our being. That is what possessed Jesus of Nazareth, and his passion was the desire to lead all of us to the same truth.

“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.   (Ex 20:17)

Sean O’Conaill July 2015

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Of Good and Evil: I – Dealing with the Darkness

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Mar 2010

As a child of the Age of Optimism – the 1960s – I have never seen a darker time than the present.

And yet it is this deepest darkness that defines the brightest light and draws my eye – and my heart and my mind – towards its source. And that source fills me with a hope that is more deeply grounded than ever.

Graduating from secondary school in Dublin in 1960 I caught the optimism of JFK and Martin Luther King and Pope John XXIII in the years that followed. Although these men were all dead by 1968 – two by assassination – I never doubted that the future must always be brighter than the past. Until 1994.

By then I was 51, and overworking in a Northern Ireland Catholic Grammar school. Fascinated by the digital revolution, I was using the new technology to gather and process news data from around the world for use in my current affairs classes for older teenagers.

That news was increasingly bad. Children were suffering and dying in too many places – victims of an indifference fostered by Western escapism and what we miscalled ‘materialism’. The environment was under increasing threat, and governments were not yet paying close attention. We already seemed to be losing the war against a plague of addiction and its close relative, depression. This in turn was often related to a chronic instability of relationships, captured in a question from an Anne Murray song: “If love never lasts forever … what’s forever for?”

This gathering darkness threatened the future of the children I was teaching, and their children too – and my own children. And Northern Ireland’s own special darkness seemed endless also, as people who were in fact brothers and sisters in Christ persisted in a fratricidal war.

And then in that year, 1994, the clerical child abuse catastrophe erupted in Ireland for the first time.

Already I was deeply frustrated by the failure of the Irish Catholic church leadership to realise the promise of Vatican II. A closed Irish clerical structure had failed the challenge of dialogue with laity that had been issued by the council. So it had also failed to develop the far too passive role of lay people. And so it had also failed to give the children I was teaching a clear notion of their mission within this deteriorating world.

The celebrated and charismatic Pope John Paul II seemed unaware of this problem. And oblivious also to the dangers of the cult of celebrity that enveloped himself – its tendency to make media ‘icons’ of a chosen few and to convince billions of others of their own unimportance.

Waving papal flags was just about OK in 1979 for the first ever papal visit to Ireland, but no more challenging or creative role was discovered by the church leadership for the Irish people of God in the years that followed.

And now in 1994 we learned for the first time that an Irish priest could devastate the lives of children. Worse – although his superiors had been made aware of it, his abuse had continued for decades in his abbey in Cavan and wherever else he roamed in Ireland – and as far abroad as Providence, Rhode Island, USA. Irish church leader had known of this behaviour decades earlier – and failed to stop it in its tracks.

That was not the first major Irish church sex scandal, of course. Two years earlier in 1992 Bishop Eamon Casey had fled from Ireland to escape a media storm following the news that he had fathered a child in 1974. That had been disturbing enough, because Bishop Casey had been one of the most prominent Church leaders in Ireland. But the Brendan Smyth affair was even more disturbing because it revealed a far deeper failure of church leadership than anyone could have suspected. How could the protection of children ever have slipped from the top of any church leader’s agenda?

Trained to suppose that all problems had to be solved in the head, by the rational, logical mind, I was processing all of this depressing data at an increasing rate – and working myself dangerously hard. What exactly was wrong? Why were we so beset by such a multitude of evils? More important, how were we to tackle them?

Yes of course I had always been warned of the problem of evil in the world, but what exactly was the mainspring of that evil? What was the deepest root of our human problem?

Then one evening in the midst of all that my youngest son, aged fourteen, came to see me in my study and said:

“I don’t believe in all this Jesus stuff – and I don’t think anyone else in my class does either!”

That really shook me – because I found myself then unable to explain to my own son why I believed that the biggest mistake we could make in the midst of a gathering world crisis was to let go of our Christian faith.

Always through these years I had been an attentive Sunday Mass goer. The first thing I would do in chapel would be to lift the missalette to scan the scripture readings, especially the Gospel. There was something about that experience that rested the mind and restored the soul. I surely believed that somewhere in that strange, dusty, ancient Palestinian world – and in the words and ceremonies that had emerged from it – lay a treasure and a secret that the world must not lose.

But what was it exactly – what was the relevance of those words and ceremonies to all that was oppressing us in 1994? What did my Sunday have to do with my Monday and the rest of my working week? If I couldn’t put my finger on that, I couldn’t even really do my job – to encourage and maintain the faith and optimism of the children I was teaching – and of my own children too.

So I did then something I should have done much earlier. I began to pray really seriously about all that was worrying me.

This time I didn’t say set, memorised prayers. I took seriously what my church (despite all its faults) had always taught – that there is a spiritual resource or presence that never leaves us, a presence that can be addressed directly. And I did that quietly in my room – confessing my own inability to see any light in the gathering darkness. And I simply asked for help with all that.

In the weeks that followed my life began to change in mysterious ways. Most importantly, I began to notice a pattern in the news stories I was processing for the children I was teaching. One human failing suddenly seemed to me to underlie problems as diverse as global warming, indifference towards 3rd world suffering, the corruption of politicians, the explosion of the cosmetics industry, and injustice of every kind – and even the failure of bishops to protect children.

My first description of this human failing was simply this: people climb!

I meant by this that we humans suffer from a chronic tendency to be dissatisfied with ourselves, and to seek satisfaction by impressing other people. To impress others we need to be noticed by them, and this leads us to climb endlessly – to attract notice.

And it suddenly seemed to me that this was the solution to an historical problem that had always baffled me – the emergence in every human society in every era of some kind of social pyramid. It is our tendency to climb that produces this also – and the snobbery of those who must look down on others. Even the United States, founded on the principle of equality, had become by 1994 just another social pyramid, with most of the graduates of Harvard, Yale and Princeton looking down on the poor with aristocratic disdain.

And then I realised what had always attracted me to the Gospels. Jesus was the great exception to this historical rule of thumb, that “everybody climbs!” He had done the exact opposite.

I became convinced I had finally managed to connect Sunday with every weekday, and to connect the Bible with my own time. Our God – especially through the Lord of the Gospels – is constantly challenging the pyramids of the world, by challenging first of all our tendency to build them.

Everything I have written since then is based upon that conviction.

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The Story of the West: II – Christian Theology and the Scientific Revolution

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Nov 2006

How did Europe come to dominate the world by 1900?

The reason is simple: the ocean-going ships that first explored and mapped the whole world began their voyages in Europe in the 1400s AD. They were followed by European soldiers who built global empires for countries such as Spain, Portugal, England, Holland and France.

And these imperialistic adventurers were usually accompanied by Christian missionaries who spread the Christian faith globally also.

And this is why, throughout the world, people speak of this as ‘the twenty-first century’. The first truly global calendar was European and Christian also, and so were the first accurate world maps.

This is what people mean when they speak about ‘the dominance of the West’. Western European countries began this period of western dominance, and the USA has continued it, right up until our own time. But how had this happened? Why did ‘the West’ become the first globally dominant civilisation.

The simplest answer is that it was western Europe that first fully exploited technical advances such as the compass, the fore-and-aft sail and gunpowder. These allowed European ships of the 1400s to navigate when out of site of land, to sail at an angle into the prevailing wind, and to overcome most opposition they met with. And it was the wealth of European trade that developed these ships and financed these voyages.

But why was Europe the most technologically and economically developed part of the world by the 1400s AD?

Most historians still tend to credit the culture of ancient Greece. The Greeks believed in the power of reason and began the systematic collection of knowledge that laid the foundations of modern science.

However, as we saw last month, the ancient Greeks did not believe in progress. Nor did they invent true science.

Science is not simply the haphazard collection of knowledge. It involves the systematic testing of every theory – either by experiment or observation. Only if repeated experiments or observations do not disprove a theory can it be accepted as scientifically proven.

The most scientific of the ancient Greeks, Aristotle, was an avid collector of information and ideas – but he never set out to test these ideas systematically. For example, he believed that heavier objects will fall faster than lighter. He could easily have devised an experiment to test this – for example by dropping stones of different weights from a high cliff at the same time, and having someone down below observe if the heavier did indeed reach the sand below before the lighter. He never did. Nor did any other ancient Greek.

The reason was simple. The ancient Greeks tended to believe that the spirit world was constantly interacting with the material world, changing the appearance of things – and making it impossible for humans to trust their own senses. Unseen spirits could easily interfere with two falling stones, to deceive any observer – so what could be the point of devising such an experiment?

For true science to happen, people had to believe that the natural world was ordered by a rational being according to unchanging natural principles lying waiting to be discovered. This attitude could never have developed in ancient Greece – or in any other ancient civilisation.

The reason that true science did not develop in the ancient world had therefore everything to do with the pagan belief systems of that world. Pagan Gods were believed to share the weaknesses of gifted humans, especially vanity, and the natural world was believed to be populated by a variety of invisible spirits with human failings also. Furthermore, pagan Gods were believed to be incapable of truly loving their worshippers – they were far too great to have any real interest in us humans.

If Gods could behave unreasonably, then the natural world could not be subject to reason either. And if Gods were uninterested in the fate of humans they could have no interest in our questions either.

The modern belief that all of nature is subject to unchanging laws – laws that lie waiting to be discovered by the human mind – required fist of all the belief that God is a rational, and consistent being. It required, in other words, the coming of Christianity and the rise of Christian theology.

No other religious tradition ever developed anything like Christian theology – a systematic attempt to explain reality in terms of a rational, creator God. And that is why true science developed first in Christian Europe

Nowadays it is often alleged that Christianity is all about ‘blind faith’, and that the coming of Christianity delayed the emergence of science and reason. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christian theology was founded on the premise that everything had been created by a loving and reasonable God. The greatest Christian theologians had far more faith in reason than many of today’s greatest intellectuals.

“Heaven forbid,” declared St Augustine (354-430 AD), “that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals. Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” 

Furthermore Augustine believed that such a search would be fruitful, declaring that although ‘certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation’ could not yet be understood, ‘one day we shall be able to do so’.

This confidence in the power of reason to produce new knowledge was the cause of the development of Christian theology in the Middle Ages, after the fall of Rome. It was also the reason for the foundation of the Christian universities after about 800 AD.

By the beginning of the modern period c 1450 AD, the Church was the most important source of support for Europe’s universities. Centuries of planetary observation in these provided the knowledge needed by the Polish Catholic priest, Copernicus, to frame his revolutionary theory that Earth and all of the other planets rotated around the sun. He hit upon this theory in the early 1500s AD.

Later, in the 1600s, Galileo’s support for Copernicus led to a papal ban – for which Pope John Paul II eventually apologised. This famous and unforgivable episode is often used by anti-Catholic intellectuals to prove that Christian faith and reason are incompatible – but these same intellectuals have never even tried to explain why the Scientific Revolution begun by Copernicus and Galileo began in Christian Europe and nowhere else.

This paradox puzzled none other than the famous atheist English philosopher Bertrand Russell. If religion was the source of all ignorance, why then had ancient China not been the cradle of the scientific revolution – as the intellectuals of ancient China had been sceptical of all religion?

Russell’s collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, provided the answer. The intellectuals of ancient China had no confidence that progress in knowledge was possible, because they believed that everything that could be known was already known.

Christian intellectuals of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, were convinced that, in Whitehead’s words “there is a secret … which can be unveiled”. He went on to explain that this conviction originated in “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God”. Faith in a rational God led to the conviction that nature too must be rationally ordered – and it was this conviction that led to the scientifically-based world we know.

Unfortunately, the historical education of most of the West’s secular intellectuals has not kept pace with their scientific and technical expertise. This is why Pope John Paul II could not persuade the leaders of the European Union to include mention of Europe’s Christian heritage in their now-delayed constitution for the enlarged EU. They are mostly simply unaware that there would not be a European Union had it not been for centuries of rational Christian theology.

Recent events in our church have also had the effect of giving many of us Catholics an inferiority complex about the history of our church. It is time we knew better – and began the task of making our church once more a beacon of enlightenment in the darkness of our own time.

Far from delaying the emergence of our modern science-based society, Christian and Catholic faith was in fact the original cradle of the modern world. We will see later how it will also provide solutions to the most critical problems of our own time – such as the threat to the environment.

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